“I’ve never heard of that,” said my Georgian host, Saba, from the other side of a large khachapuri. This was not good news for my attempts to book the elusive sleeper train from Yerevan to Batumi, which supposedly stopped in Tbilisi along the way, and which I was supposed to be boarding in a couple of days’ time. I sighed and reloaded the Georgian Railways booking page. When this still failed to show any sign of the missing train 201, I gave up in disgust. With my limited time in Georgia, I had been very much planning to save a day with an overnight trip.
Eternally kind, Saba offered to call the railway company for me. Apparently, since a recent upgrade to the railways, sleeper services no longer ran between the two cities as the journey didn’t take enough time. Instead, my options were limited to daytime services or an overnight seat. We shrugged and headed out for the evening with his friends.
Three days later, I stood uncertainly on the dark pavement in front of what appeared to be a large shopping mall, but which Google Maps proudly proclaimed to be Tbilisi Railway Station. A pair of businessmen with neat suitcases strolled confidently through the sliding glass doors, and I followed them hopefully through the deserted mall and up to the third floor. Here, rows of seats replaced the shops, while blinking LED screens flashed out departures. The mall had become a station waiting room. Having successfully found the 801 on the board and reassured myself that, as scheduled, it wouldn’t be leaving for another two hours, I set off in search of food.
Unlike most transit hubs, the station was short of places to eat, and even the vending machine on the ground floor turned out to be selling books instead of snacks. Since I had plenty of time, I walked a couple of blocks until I spotted the welcoming lights of Shaurma Club (13 Queen Tamar Ave, Tbilisi), a late-night kebab spot. Even at that time, it was doing good business, clearly as popular with locals on a night out as with tourists waiting for the train.
Hot bag of chips in hand, I headed back towards the station, chastising myself slightly for not having found something more authentically Georgian but comforted by the tastiness of the food and the fact I had eaten my weight in khachapuri, khinkali and ajapsandali over the previous few days. On the way, I found myself chatting to a passing Georgian student, who wanted to know if I knew any good nightclubs in the city. After getting over my surprise at the role reversal, I suggested a couple that Saba and his friends had mentioned. He disappeared down a side street with a cheery, “Thank you!”, while checking his phone for directions.
I carried on until I was waylaid by a small ginger cat perching on a large bin. It mewed beseechingly until I offered it a chip, which it sniffed warily before turning its nose up in disgust and vanishing into the dumpster, clearly disapproving of my taste in food.
A little after midnight, the LED board flashed a direction to board train 801. Following the flow of passengers down the escalator and out through the side of the mall, I found a sleek express waiting. After the mandatory ID and ticket check at the carriage door, I found my allocated place easily enough. The seats were spacious airline-style armchairs with plenty of luggage space nearby, and the train itself was clearly brand new. There was even a small free library near the door!
After a pleasant chat about our various travels with the lady sitting next to me, we both settled down for the night. Seeing me curling up under my scarf, a good-natured young guard in an immaculate uniform politely offered me a blanket. Despite the lack of a bed and the bright overhead lights being left on all night, I managed to get a decent few hours’ sleep using my backpack as a pillow.
It being dark, there was not much chance to see anything from the train. However, I heard from other travellers once I arrived in Batumi that the views can be quite spectacular, so unless you’re pushed for time it might be better to travel in daylight. At about 5:15am, I woke up from my doze to find the children belonging to the family opposite staring at me curiously among the general sounds of people organizing themselves and their luggage. I was parched from the air conditioning and the water in my bottle had run out. Luckily, the carriage came equipped with a well-stocked vending machine. Being the kind of person who can’t see an unknown item of food or drink without wanting to try it, I ended up with some very refreshing pear soda from Natakhtari, and something reminiscent of a Sesame Snap with added nuts.
Exactly on time, we pulled into Batumi Central Station. The sea and the sky were almost the same shade of slate-grey, fringed by a few palm trees that were near enough invisible behind a sleeting curtain of equally grey rain. It was hardly the scene I had expected from photos of bright sunshine and beaches I had seen while researching my trip. Thankfully, my host had driven to collect me, although I still ended up drenched to the skin from the short sprint between the station and his car. As we trundled off down the rain-soaked main street, I could not help thinking how generous and friendly most of the people I had come across on the trip were. The fact that he had come out at 6am to collect a virtual stranger from the station in driving rain just proved the point.
Two days later, my host had left and I’d checked into a hostel for the rest of the stay. Chatting to my new Spanish roommate on a seafront cafe terrace, she’d asked how I got there. After telling her I returned the question.
“By the sleeper train from Yerevan,” she said.
“The sleeper train? The railway company said they didn’t run any more!” I exclaimed in dismay. The mystery was only solved several months later, when I idly looked it up in a moment of boredom and found a report from another traveller who had run into the same problem. As it turned out, that particular train doesn’t show up on the Georgian Railways website because it is run by the Armenian South Caucasus Railway (http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English), a possibility which hadn’t occurred to me because the leg of the journey I was making took place entirely within Georgia. At least I got to try out one of the brand-new Stadler trains!
Departs: Tbilisi railway station, 21, 19, Tsotne Dadiani St, Tbilisi, Georgia (თბილისის რკინიგზის სადგური, 21, 19, ცოტნე დადიანის ქუჩა, თბილისი in Georgian). Multiple daily departures – see http://www.railway.ge/en/traffic-general-schedule/ for details.
Arrives: 05:55, Batumi Central Station, Queen Tamar Highway, Batumi, Georgia
Journey time: approx. 5 ½ hrs
Company: Georgian Railways
Price: 61 GEL (as of July 2019)
Tickets: Can be booked online at www.tickets.railway.ge. Booking available in Georgian, English and Russian. Tickets can be booked up to 40 days before travel – book in good time in summer. You need your email, passport and phone number to create an account. Accepts Visa and Mastercard. Tickets also available in person from local booking offices. If you are looking for a sleeper service, you’ll need to go to the Armenian South Caucasus Railway site at http://www.ukzhd.am/en.html for booking and information in English.
Seating: Airline style.
Rest stops: None, but clean modern toilets, a vending machine and a library were available onboard.
All information correct as of August 2019. We recommend checking the latest departures before your journey.